Developmental Neurobiology, which is understanding different aspects of brain development, plays a critical role in determining the onset and progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

Upasana Maheshwari, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University Hospital Zurich, investigates the changes in brain blood vessels in the context of neurological disorders.

Upasana talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her Masters by Research program in Biological Sciences from TIFR, Mumbai, which paved the way for a career in biological research.

For students, research is not an easy career, but if you have your heart in it, even the hard times will be forgotten when you see the outcome of your work.

Upasana, Your background?

I grew up with two elder sisters and parents in west Delhi. To provide their kids with a better education, my parents moved from a small town in Rajasthan to Delhi long before I was born. From when I was a kid and to this day, I have been fascinated by the development of living organisms, be it a small human baby growing up or observing caterpillars transform into beautiful insects. These experiences initially shaped my interest in pursuing biology and then developmental neurobiology as my field of study. Apart from this, I spent my childhood days painting and taking photographs, something that I still enjoy doing. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences from Delhi University followed by a MSc by Research in Biological Science from Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, Mumbai. Here, I got a chance to study and do research in the field of brain development. Subsequently, to take my research interests forward, I got the opportunity to join the PhD in Neurobiology program of Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, Basel, Switzerland. 

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

The starting point for my career choices was my interest in developmental biology. I came across the next steps at the right moment to keep my interest alive and take it forward.

The main influence for me was the book “Developmental Biology” by Scott F. Gilbert and of course my teacher, Dr. Satish, at Delhi University who introduced me to this book.

I am grateful to so many people, including some of my Bachelor’s teachers, colleagues and advisor from my master’s program, my PhD supervisor and my postdoc advisor for helping me steer my way so far. One of the main persons to inspire me was Prof. Vinay Gupta, Department of Physics, Delhi University. 

For me, there have been no real turning points, just good advice from people around me.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I have a very simple approach when it comes to planning, I don’t plan a lot. I like to explore and then choose my path based on what my heart desires. And so far, my steps to my current career were taken in the same way. I made sure I was aware, to the extent possible, of the opportunities available. I did a fun first internship at the Department of Physics, Delhi University. During that time, we planned a very simple but cool experiment which we thought would change the field of biomedical instrumentation ☺ It didn’t. But our mentor, Prof. Vinay Gupta, was very supportive of our ideas and let us explore them, in spite of knowing they won’t work. That experience gave me a taste for research and I enjoyed it tremendously. I knew then that I would like to be in a lab, doing research.  I didn’t get selected for the master’s programs of my choice immediately after my bachelors and although it was disappointing, I used this time to paint more, and read more about the available research programs across India. I also had the opportunity to conduct a 3 month internship in beautiful Uttarakhand. 

I was luckier the next year to be selected for the Masters by Research program at TIFR, Mumbai. From there on, the path was smoother. The program prepared me thoroughly for research work and deepened my interest in the field even further. By being a part of masters by research program, I worked on a research project since the beginning of my tenure there. My work at TIFR was part of a larger project mainly focused on investigating the steps that shape the early phase of mouse brain formation. I worked with my colleagues on identifying protein partners and gene targets of a transcription factor, which was a key player in defining the timing for formation of neurons. This was a very cool yet a challenging project as we were establishing a new technique in the group and that meant a lot of failures and trials. But the day I got my first results from this new technique, I was ecstatic, and all the hard times were immediately forgotten. To be in TIFR was also a privilege as the student community is closely knit and therefore from very early on we were made aware of possible future opportunities to choose from.

After 3 years at TIFR, the process of selecting the next step to advance my research career was easier. I applied and got selected for the prestigious PhD program at FMI and moved to Switzerland to realize my dreams. The neuroscience program of FMI and University of Basel is one of the best and I did not think twice when given an opportunity to join them. In addition, it was a fully funded PhD tenure and that assuaged my fears about financing my study abroad. At FMI, I took up another fun yet challenging project to investigate how neurons in the hindbrain connect to the neurons in other parts of the brain. While I was still working towards investigating different aspects of brain development, I started to realize that I would like to explore the field even more but now in the context of brain disorders. With this motivation, I joined the University Hospital in Zurich where I now work on neurodegenerative diseases.    

How did you get your first break?

The entrance exam and the interview process for the Masters by Research program at TIFR, Mumbai was very different and I guess that worked in my favor. Instead of examining us only on our ability to remember what we read in the books during graduation, they were more interested in knowing if we can also come up with clever ways to solve a problem. I guess I did impress my examining committee and got my chance to enter the research world.

My other interviews for PhD as well for the Post Doctoral research position, were based on my interest in the field and the research interest of the interviewing group. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I have faced several challenges since my undergraduate days, but my motivation to continue with research as a career and some very nice people around me have helped me address the challenges and I am sure will keep helping me on any future challenge as well. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work as a postdoctoral researcher at the University Hospital Zurich. My work is to investigate the changes in brain blood vessels during the onset and progression of neurodegenerative diseases. Although we are still doing fundamental research, my work now is more focused on investigating conditions directly underlying neurodegenerative diseases.  

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

For my work, I utilize my wet lab skills gained over the years of training and I continue to acquire new skills to keep myself updated with current techniques and applications. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day at work for me is to spend time with my colleagues to define our next steps, managing the lab,  running experiments or analyzing results, and writing emails. I love that I have the freedom to explore and investigate different aspects of brain development and this time, I can directly speak with neurosurgeons and clinicians to know if my findings have a direct relevance to the human condition.  

How does your work benefit society?

Our team’s work provides insights into the dysfunctions of blood vessels in the brain. We believe that our findings can provide further basis to improve the symptomatic treatment of patients suffering with neurodegenerative diseases. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My only advice will be to follow the heart. There is no right or wrong career choice, what matters is that you enjoy what you do. 

Future Plans?

My short term plan is to continue with my research and keep investigating brain dysfunctions. My long-term plan is to stay happy.